Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Aniki Bóbó (1942)

( This post is part of the Luso World Cinema Blogathon hosted by Crítica Retrô and Spellbound By Movies)

Manoel de Oliveira had one of the longest careers of any film director in history. His first documentary short, "Douro, Faina Fluvial," was released in 1931. His final work, the segment "O Conquistador Conquistado" in Centro Histórico, came out in 2012. What is more, Manoel de Oliveira may have been the most celebrated Portuguese director of all time, regularly being nominated for or winning various awards at film festivals. What is more, he displayed a mastery of filmmaking from the very beginning. His first feature film, Aniki Bóbó (1942), is widely regarded as a classic.

On the surface, Aniki Bóbó does not appear to be a complex film. It centres on a group of kids in Mr. de Oliveira's hometown of Porto. One of the kids is Carlitos (played by Horácio Silva), a shy, introspective boy. Another is Eduardo (played by António Santos), an extroverted bully who acts as the group's leader. The two of them are rivals for the heart of the only girl in the group, Terezinha (played by Fernanda Matos), a situation which gives the film one of its central conflicts.

Aniki Bóbó was very loosely based on the short story "Meninos Milionários," in English "Millionaire Boys." The story centres on a group of boys who only experience freedom after they leave the oppressive confines of their school. Manoel de Oliveira took the bare bones of the story and expanded upon it, adding to it the romantic rivalry between Carlitos and Eduardo. The title, Aniki Bóbó, comes from a children's counting rhyme similar to "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" in English.

While Aniki Bóbó is today regarded as a classic, it was not well received upon its initial release in Portugal in 1942. The film received negative reviews from critics. Worse yet, it did badly at the box office. Ultimately, the reception for Aniki Bóbó was so poor that Manoeul de Oliveira would not make another film until the documentary short "O Pintor e a Cidade," released in 1956. 

As to why Aniki Bóbó was so poorly received upon its initial release, much of it may well have been the fact that it was different from any other films being made in Portugal at the time. The year 1933 saw the beginning of Estado Novo, the period of authoritarian rule in Portugal that lasted until 1974. It was for that reason that most movies did not take much in the way of chances. In fact, most films released in Portugal in the Thirties and Forties belonged only to a few genres, namely comedies and historical dramas. Aniki Bóbó was neither of these. What is more, in some ways it contradicted the ideology of the Portuguese regime at the time. Indeed, Aniki Bóbó deals with children who lie, cheat, and steal, this at a time when most Portuguese movies placed emphasis upon conventional morality. What is more, none of the adults in the film have names and the only significant adult character treated with sympathy is the kindly Shopkeeper (played by Nascimento Fernandes), owner of the Loja das Tentações (Shop of Temptations). One can imagine how Portuguese critics at the time might have reacted to Aniki Bóbó.

Of course, it probably did not help that not only was Aniki Bóbó different from movies being made in Portugal at the time, but anywhere else for that matter. Aniki Bóbó is often cited as a predecessor to Italian neorealism. After all, the film was shot on the streets of Porto with non-professional actors. None of the children had ever acted before. What is more, it is shot almost entirely using natural lighting. Keep in mind that Aniki Bóbó was released a year before Luchino Visconti's Ossessione and three years before Roberto Rossellini's Roma città aperta.

While Aniki Bóbó shares some things in common with the Italian neorealist films, it also differs from them a good deal. In Aniki Bóbó no effort is taken to portray everyday life in Porto. The children run around streets that are largely empty of people. Except for Carlitos, we are never really shown any of the children's home lives, and even then we never see Carlitos's mother's face. Although Aniki Bóbó shares things in common with Italian neorealism, ultimately it isn't a neorealist film. In fact, it plays out more as a morality play than it does an attempt to reproduce everyday life in a Portuguese town in 1942.

Indeed, while Aniki Bóbó departs to a degree from other Portuguese films of the time, it shares in common with them a plot involving crossing traditional moral boundaries and then making amends for doing so. At the core of Aniki Bóbó is guilt as experienced by its lead character Carlitos. While Portuguese critics at the time may have been critical of the behaviour of the children in the film, in the end most of them make up for any wrongs they might have done.

That having been said, while Aniki Bóbó does conform to traditional morality to a large degree, it also displays defiance to something held to be important by the Portuguese authoritarian regime at the time. Quite simply, authority does not come off well in Aniki Bóbó. The school is not presented as an enjoyable place of learning, but rather a restrictive space in which the children have no freedom. The scenes in the classroom are a sharp contrast to the freedom the children enjoy on the streets of Porto. To make matters worse, the local policeman in the film is presented as a sinister presence. Quite simply, the children are scared of him. In fact, the only adults presented sympathetically are a street singer and the Shopkeeper (who in some ways serves as the film's moral compass).

While the plot of Aniki Bóbó is easily described, in many respects it is a very complicated film that examines moral transgressions, guilt, forgiveness, and authority. What makes it even more powerful is the fact that it combines beautiful cinematography with some sterling performances from its cast with a well written script. While Aniki Bóbó may not have been well received in Portugal upon its initial release, it is easy to see why it would come to be regarded as a classic.



This is a brilliant review of a great movie. I haven't thought about the morals as you did, and haven't realized how the Shopkeeper is the only sympathetic adult. Manoel de Oliveira deserves all the prize, in special for making such a complex film in his feature filme debut.
Thanks for joining us in our blogathon!

Beth Ann Gallagher said...

This film in the blogathon has become a must see for me! I tend to enjoy pictures that are truly from a child's perspective, and your piece has convinced me I will enjoy it. I wonder if the film was avoided during its original release due to fear? During the darkest time in modern Portugal artists could be put in jail for making art the offended the regime. I need to dive more into Manoel de Oliveira's work. I've not seen enough of it!

Silver Screenings said...

I love films that seem simple/straightforward, but are actually layered and complex. This sounds like one to see soon.